Toni Lyn Morelli

Sector: Government

Field: Science

Occupation: Research Ecologist

Meet Toni Morelli, USGS Research Ecologist, DOI Northeast Climate Adaptation Science Center (click here for full audio interview).

Tell me your earliest memory of being interested in science.

I became interested in science through the wildlife in the backyard of my childhood home.  I would rescue baby bunnies and birds and feed them with droppers of formula.  I knew early on that I wanted to work with animals for a living, long before I knew any scientists.

How or when did you realize science transformed something around you or was transforming you?

I think science opened opportunities for me that I would not have had otherwise.  I come from an immigrant, working class family; my grandparents came to the US from Italy with their kids and spoke little English.  My generation is the first in the family to get Bachelor’s degrees.  So the fact that I now have a PhD in Ecology & Evolution, that I travel around the country and the world for meetings and research, that I supervise graduate students, publish papers in scientific journals, and am training the next generation, is transformative.  I never imagined such a future for myself as I didn’t know that it was possible.  In that way, science has transformed me.

What have been your most significant challenges (personally, geographically, socially, academically or other) in either becoming a scientist or having a career in science? 

Being a girl from a working-class family in the Midwest was a barrier to going to the best schools and getting the best science training. Many of the elite schools overlook the vast center of the country in their recruiting for undergraduates and even graduates. Not having family connections to a university was a challenge to knowing how to apply and succeed.  And my gender is a recurrent impediment to reaching the highest ranks of the science community.  I feel it especially as a mom in science, with the challenge of balancing family life with the work that needs to be put in to succeed and being judged for traveling and working long hours.  I also feel it with finding mentors and with connecting with colleagues (most of whom are male and tend to gravitate toward each other), as well as being asked to do more service and spend more time representing women given the gender imbalance.  I have no doubt that if I was a person of color all of these challenges would be amplified.

This year is a milestone for AGU.  How do you feel about being part of such a big moment celebrating Earth Day during our 100 year anniversary?

The communication and outreach opportunity that Earth Day provides, in conjunction with the resources and expertise of AGU to reach out, make for an unprecedented opportunity to reach the public about the environmental issues of our day, and in particular, climate change, the defining issue of our century.

Where do you see yourself in the future of science?

I’m lucky to be solidly focused on climate change, the defining issue of our century, and I look forward to using my science and my voice to help us solve the problems that it brings.  On another note, my most important contribution in the end may be acting as a mentor to younger women scientists, to help pave the way, from my mentors experience of being the first, through my experience of being in rare company, to (hopefully) an experience of a woman in science being normalized.

Tell us how your specific work can impact people in the U.S. or around the world.

I focus on identifying climate change impacts, which can help natural resource managers and conservation practitioners focus on species and ecosystems that are particularly vulnerable (or resistant) to climate change and thus improve conservation outcomes.  Likewise, I am helping develop the field of translational ecology, which is focused on a form of translational science that brings together scientists and stakeholders to improve conservation decision-making. This process could impact a broad community and the impact of research across a wide variety of topics and geographies.

If you could give one statement or message that you want people to know about you or your science, what would it be?

Someday I want to tell my son, who is currently five years old and will have to deal with the repercussions more than I will, that I did everything I could to help alleviate the impacts of the climate change crisis. I work every day to make that statement more true.

What advice to you have for students considering to study Earth or space science?

Do it! We need you! All hands on deck, this issue is bigger and more dire than any one of us, we need all minds, especially those that increase the diversity (and thus the breadth of perspectives) on these issues.